May is shaping up to be a huge month not only for summer movies, but for music. Four bands that have released Album of the Year-quality albums are set to release new albums in the coming weeks. As a music geek, you may have looked forward to these types of “Super Tuesday” events when two or even three big releases dropped on the same day. However, the advent of streaming releases ahead of the release date has taken much of the luster out of these musical “Super Tuesdays”.
Almost a month before its May 17th release date, LCD Soundsystem is streaming This is Happening on their website. NPR is streaming the new Hold Steady and Broken Social Scene albums. And last week, The New York Times streamed The National’s High Violet.
There’s a youthful embrace for all things synth coming from musicians barely or not even alive in the ‘80s. As one who gasped with the crowd as the Cure took the stage without a drum kit and began the set by pushing play to beats on a prerecorded track, I’m enjoying the current offerings by bands such as Passion Pit, Friendly Fires and Two Door Cinema Club. Two Door Cinema Club began three years ago by a trio of boys in Northern Ireland when they were 15—do the math and be amazed. Sam Halliday and Alex Trimble actually knew each other in grammar school and began studying music together before meeting Kevin Baird. When a drummer dropped out, they experimented with manufacturing their own drum tracks and decided they liked it that way. Their name comes from a mispronunciation of a local cinema, known as the Tudor Cinema club and their new debut album, Tourist History, refers to the popularity of their hometown of Bangor as well as the band’s extended travels with their gain in notoriety. This follows songs on a Kitsune music compilation and an EP produced by the French record label last year. Tourist History is comprised of ten tightly composed songs which bounce along with shout outs, crowd noises and walls of electronic sound.
I discovered “Something Good Can Work” last spring and promptly put it in a prominent spot on my personal playlist. Its unabashed happy-go-lucky feel had me hooked.
Another favorite off the EP, “Do You Want It All”, leads off with manufactured high hats, guitar arpeggios and keyboard chords before Trimble’s sweet vocals. The next song, “This Is the Life” is a new fun find, cranking up a funky groove into another wash of synths before the vocals come in—the title becomes the chorus followed by ‘woos’ most appropriately. “I Can Talk” starts with percussive vocals which explode to a full blown rollicking sound to amp up the energetic approach.
“Eat That Up, It’s Good For You” also begins slowly with lyrics like “You would look a little better, you know, if you wore less makeup” as a reminder of the teen viewpoint but all is forgiven by another explosion of sound at the chorus with more cheerful shout outs in the background. Everything dramatically drops out to end with only the hum of a chord.
Tourist History can be previewed until May 5th on kcrw.com and the band will visit the station’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show on May 4th. It’s a live session that I already have marked on my calendar.
The answer, of course, is Moses Asch. This month marks the 104th birthday of Asch, who founded Folkways Records more than 70 years ago along with Marian Distler. One of the most valuable musical, audio, and cultural resources of the last century, Folkways Records aimed to document the sounds (and lack of sounds) of the universe. That included titles like Sounds of North American Tree Frogs (1958), Sounds of Steam Locomotives (1956), and Sounds of a South African Homestead (1956).
It also included folk music, not just from the U.S., but from all over the world. Here’s how Asch explained the importance of this music: “Since folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us. Folk music reflects…a people’s culture, its heritage, its character.” Over the years, Folkways Records introduced the world to voices like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pete Seeger. In 1952, the massive six-album collection “Anthology of American Folk Music” put Folkways on the map for good and changed the face of popular music forever. That compilation turned the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith on to folk music, in particular the blues and country sounds of rural America. It was the first time most people had even heard of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, and the effect was gargantuan. (In fact, as I sit here next to my own copy of “Anthology of American Folk Music,” with its six CDs and its ghostly essay booklet, I can still sense the collection’s power, and it gives me chills.)
When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways after Asch’s death in 1987, they agreed to continue Asch’s tradition of always keeping all the label’s releases in print, regardless of record sales. In total, Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings under Asch and, since the Smithsonian’s acquisition, over 300 more have been put out.
Music lovers owe it to themselves to check out Folkways Records. Here are some other excellent releases from the label, in no particular order, that show the enormous scope of its astounding discography:
Music of the Carousel (1961) Sounds of Sea Animals (1955) Blind Willie Johnson, 1927-1930, Blind Willie Johnson (1965) Angela Davis Speaks, Angela Davis (1971) American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, Pete Seeger (2009) Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1964) Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler (1975) Negro Prison Camp Worksongs (1956) Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery, Little Brother Montgomery (1975) Watergate, Vol. 1: the Break In (1973) Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (1990)
On the TV show Project Runway, hopeful designers are given challenges to make fabulous fashions on a shoestring budget. Their faces invariably crinkle in dismay when they find they’ve only got $150 and 24 hours to make a gown worthy of the red carpet. When the results are evaluated, one of the most coveted comments from the judges is that a piece “looks expensive” even though it was created with very little money. The ultimate compliment is when Heidi Klum says something like, “I could walk right out of here and wear that to a party tonight.”
Being an unsigned band is kind of like being a contestant on Project Runway. You might have more time to produce a CD, but not a whole lot more financial resources. Most of the time, the results are a bit rough-hewn, raggedy around the hem, with an exposed zipper or puckered fabric here and there. But every once in a while, a little nobody band manages to produce a CD so good, so cohesive, and so professional that it could sit right beside the cream of popular music, today, as is. San Diego’s own Transfer has submitted just such an album, Future Selves, and if enough people heard it, I have no doubt it could walk right out of here and go to a party with Kings of Leon, Weezer, Muse, and everyone else on Billboard’s rock charts for November 2009.
Every few years I wonder “What ever happened to Alice Donut?” The Brooklyn band has been around since 1986, putting out 12 albums and countless singles while it did what all good punk bands did back then—toured its ass off all over the world. Led by vocalist Tomas Antona, the band has spent the majority of its career on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, and if any band could personify Biafra’s off-kilter take on music and the world in general, it would be Alice Donut. Just look at some of their album titles: Dork Me Bangladesh, The Untidy Suicides of Your Degenerate Children. Over a decade before emo made the mile-long song title faddish, Alice Donut gave us a little ditty called “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stoned in the Parking Lot of a Winn Dixie Listening to Metallica”. (Take that, Fall Out Boy!) If Alice Donut didn’t exist, Snakefinger from the Residents would have had to invent them. And they’re back with a new CD, Ten Glorious Animals.
After a long hiatus following their 1996 breakup, the band reformed to release Three Sisters in 2004 and Fuzz in 2006. They occupy that murky grey area of one of those stalwart bands with no real commercial success in over two decades of playing, but sufficient fans dotting the globe to make it worthwhile to persevere. It is a subject that plays out in their lyrics, as Antona and his band mates wryly accept their lot in life on the track “Shiloh”: “Gonna get famous and rich / Got a gig with the Unsane / And 7 Year Bitch.” They know they aren’t going to be the next Green Day, and they’re cool with that. As guitarist Michael Jung said in a 2007 interview, “We weren’t in search of hand jobs or castles. There’s all kinds of popular success. Look at Tom Waits.”